Aiming for Olympic Spirit? Then give biathlon a shot

Turin Olympics

February 12, 2006|By RICK MAESE

CESANA, ITALY — Cesana, Italy-- --Sometimes we have to look in the unexpected places.

Olympic Spirit isn't tangible, doesn't have its own URL or Wikipedia entry. But it exists, and you want to see it.

You flip off the television because you're pretty sure the sparkle on Katie Couric's front tooth isn't the Spirit's glimmer. Then you venture outside because that's what the Winter Games are all about. If you're not cold, you aren't doing this thing right.

The Spirit is tricky. The organizers of the Games think that if they've bestowed the five-ring brand on something, it inherently has Spirit emanating off it like steam from a boiling pot of water.

But that's not the case.

And that's why we immediately go through an elimination process. Sorry, Bode Miller. You went corporate on us. Hockey? We'll revisit you after the gambling investigation. Snowboarders? Sip your Red Bull off in the corner. We're not talking about the X-lympics here.

No, you go outside the city, zig-zagging up narrow roads and stop somewhere in the Italian Alps. It's cold, but the stands are filled to the brim. You don't notice any American flags. That's because this sport doesn't even register on your side of the Atlantic.

In Europe, the biathlon is the preeminent winter sport, and right before your eyes the god of the biathlon, wearing a No. 57 bib, tucks his poles under his arms as he glides down a hill. As he comes to a stop, he whips the .22-caliber, bolt-action rifle from off his back and tries to steady his hands.

The biathlon isn't the oldest Olympic sport, but it's the first of these Winter Games to award medals. Which is fitting, if only because it feels like a true winter sport. So many of the competitions in the modern Games feel like they were born from a staff meeting by some research and development department.

Jon Stewart likened the events to drunken bets. "You think the luge is a sport?" he said on HBO four years ago. "It's not a sport. It's a bet. `Here, have a beer, lie like this.' "

Which is why you've come to Cesana. The odd combination of disciplines is a bit humorous to Americans, but the competition itself is anything but easy.

You watch the biathlon legend - he's a Norwegian named Ole Einar Bjoerndalen - aim his rifle. He just finished skiing 2 1/2 miles. Most biathletes' hearts are firing at 180 beats a minute by time they reach for their gun. Can you imagine keeping your hands still?

His target is 164 feet away and it's smaller than a golf ball.

You no longer notice how cold it is as empty cartridge shells fly from Bjoerndalen's gun. The fans behind you are going crazy because they know what kind of legend is competing before them.

There's universal terminology to describe the world's very elite athletes. There's usually just one man or woman in any field that deserves the honor: "He is the Michael Jordan of the biathlon," says American competitor Tim Burke.

Bjoerndalen has won 57 World Cup events. At the 2002 Games, he became just the third athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. He knows all about the Olympic Spirit.

He also knows that we sometimes must look in unexpected places.

Nearly a decade ago, Bjoerndalen met a vacuum cleaner salesman in his hometown, Trondheim, Norway. The two hit if off. Today, Oyvind Hammer is still selling vacuums, but he's also Bjoerndalen's mental coach, teaching the athlete the same principles that make a successful salesman.

Bjoerndalen misses one of his five targets. He starts skiing again - docked a minute as penalty - and after 2 1/2 miles he again reaches for his gun. The second time, he again misses one of the targets and puts himself in a big hole - he was in 25th place after the first shooting, 15th after the second.

In the final two shootings, though, he is flawless, and his fast skiing propels him to a second-place finish. He was just 16 seconds behind Germany's Michael Greis.

After the race, Greis never relaxes his smile. It's bigger than his medal. And Bjoerndalen appears happy with silver.

"The competition is harder here than in Salt Lake," Bjoerndalen says. "If you want to win, you have to do everything perfect."

He has four events remaining at these Games, still a chance to match his medal total from Salt Lake City. After his news conference, more than a dozen Norwegian reporters follow Bjoerndalen outside and wrap themselves around him like a scarf.

He is Norway's biggest sports star. He excels in a sport that means little to much of the world. But it matters to him.

He has recently stopped talking in terms of winning and losing. Bjoerndalen talks about finding the "perfect race," the one time out on the course where everything comes together at the same time. His true foe is himself, which makes victory charge through each of the senses.

Only a few athletes will take gold medals back to their home countries. But Olympic Spirit isn't colored gold.

It's the pursuit of personal perfection, something that can be shared with the entire world just once every four years.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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